Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel sought to defuse bilateral tensions at an EU summit on Wednesday (17 October) after Flemish and Spanish authorities traded accusations over Spain’s handling of Catalonia’s illegal declaration of independence and imprisonment of separatists.
Flemish president Geert Bourgeois called on Belgium’s federal government to summon the Spanish ambassador after Madrid decided to withdraw diplomatic credentials to Flanders in response to continued criticism over the management of the Catalan crisis.
Spain’s move came in response to a letter by the president of the Flemish parliament Jan Peumans, who criticised Madrid for jailing Catalan separatists.
The way Spain had imprisoned Catalan politicians showed the country was unable “to meet the conditions to be part of a modern democratic European Union,” Peumans stated in the letter, which infuriated Madrid.
A dozen of Catalan leaders were sent to prison because of their involvement in the organisation of an illegal referendum and a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain in October 2017.
In his letter, Peumans described police violence during the consultation in Catalonia as an “outrageous expression of an undemocratic policy.” Peumans is a member of the Flemish New Alliance (N-VA), a separatist party which enjoys a majority in the Parliament of Flanders, the largest region of Belgium.
The missive was addressed to Carme Forcadell, former president of the Catalan parliament, who is in prison due to her involvement in Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence.
The Spanish government warned Flemish authorities up to three times before removing the region’s diplomatic credentials, Foreign Affairs minister Josep Borrell told the press, denouncing the “continuous offences” by Flanders against Madrid.
Bourgeois described the decision as a “hostile act” and called on Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Reynders to summon the Spanish ambassador, Beatriz Larrotcha.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel refused to comment on the tensions between Flemish and Spanish authorities. “There is no diplomatic conflict between the Federal State and Spain,” he stressed, on his arrival to an EU summit meeting on Wednesday.
He underlined however that Flanders has autonomy under the Belgian constitution to handle its diplomatic relations with other countries, including Spain.
Charles Michel and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez did have a discussion before the summit yesterday. But it is unclear whether they addressed the emerging conflict between the Spanish and Flemish authorities.
However, diplomatic sources confirmed that Belgian officials had tried to ease the tension between the two countries, underlining that Flemish government actions were entirely independent.
Michel caught in the Catalan conflict
Charles Michel has been caught in the Catalan crisis almost since it began due to the composition of his own government, where the Flemish nationalist party N-VA is strongly represented.
Michel already caused some tension with Madrid when he condemned the Police violence in Catalonia during the region’s illegal referendum of independence.
“Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue,” the Belgian prime minister said on Twitter at the time.
— Charles Michel (@CharlesMichel) October 1, 2017
The situation worsened when deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four ex-ministers fled Judicial prosecution in Spain and sought refuge in Flanders after the failed declaration of independence.
A few days before, the Belgian Secretary of State for asylum and migration Theo Francken suggested “Catalan who feel politically threatened” could ask for asylum in Belgium.
Although this did not happen, Belgian authorities refused to extradite the three ex-ministers who still live in Belgium after Spanish authorities issued a European arrest warrant, citing procedural defects.
When questioned over the possible division in his government due to the Catalan conflict at the time, Michel underlined that there was a political crisis in Spain, not in Belgium.